21 November 2017

Changes Afoot to Barrister Training Program in England?

My favorite legal website in England, Legal Cheek, had a recent post that might interest my students taking one of the common law courses I teach. The short, and always entertaining, article highlights how the cost and über competitive nature of the barrister training process is forcing the powers that be to rethink how this process can be improved. The article is worth a quick look.

20 November 2017

Judicial Qualifications

As students in my courses have learned, the process for filling vacancies in the U.S. federal court system involves the President nominating a candidate and a majority of the Senate voting to confirm that person. As I have also mentioned, the constitution is silent as to what qualifications one needs to be a judge. A cynic might say that the only qualification is catch the President's eye and convince a majority of the Senate you can be a judge. While the Senate usually takes its job of ensuring that candidates for these positions are qualified, politics sometimes gets in the way. And so it seems with one of President Trump's recent nominees for U.S. District Court Judge

The Los Angeles Times recently had a scathing editorial taking the President and Senate to task for seriously considering a 36 years old candidate who "has practiced law for only a few years and never tried a case." Read the rest to get a taste of how the qualifications of judicial nominee can be become quite contentious and why being cynical about the process is sometimes warranted.

17 November 2017

Rarely Discussed Process Being Discussed

Just when you thought that American politics couldn't get more dysfunctional, or as one commentator likes to say, more stupid, along comes a special election in Alabama to fill one of its seats left vacant by Jeff Sessions becoming Attorney General. The election was already "special" in that it features a candidate who had already been removed from sitting on the Alabama Supreme Court because he refused to follow the U.S. Constitution. Now this candidate is accused of dating minors when he was a 30 year old government lawyers. As more and more women come forward telling the same story about this candidate, and as polls in Alabama seem to indicate that the voters of Alabama might still elect him (!!), leaders in the United States Senate have been openly saying they will not allow this candidate to sit in the Senate should he be elected.

Can do they do that, you might ask? Students in my American Constitutional Law course should know the answer to this, but I'd be surprised if they do as we spend all of about five seconds talking about this topic. Early on I tell students that the Constitution gives both the Senate and House the power to make internal rules and punish their own. Punishment can include removal.

As a recent New York Times article correctly points out, while the Senate cannot refuse to accept this candidate should he be elected, it most surely can vote to remove him.

16 November 2017

Criminal Case Against U.S. Senator Might be Stalled

An article a few days ago on NJ.com had a headline reading "Defense in Menendez case pushes for mistrial as jurors fail to reach verdict." Oh, where to begin. So far all of my groups studying common law have been exposed in one way or another to the use of juries. Coming up will be a discussion on "mistrials" and "hung juries." If you want a preview of this topic, do yourself a favor and check out the article from which the headline is taken.

UPDATE: last night, after speaking individually to each juror, the judge declare a mistrial because the jury could not reach a verdict.

14 November 2017

Unanimous Jury Issue Might be Heading to Court

Most of our knowledge about juries comes from popular culture where more often than not it said that in order to convict someone, the jury must be unanimous. As it turns out, this is not always the case in the United States, as two states allow for 10-2 jury convictions. The Washington Post recently ran an Op-Ed that is not only critical of these two states, but makes the argument that their policy regarding unanimous decisions has a racist history:
Louisiana and Oregon are not often thought of in the same vein. But on the issue of non-unanimous juries, they are kindred spirits. 
In these two states, the prosecutor needs to persuade only 10 of 12 jurors for a felony conviction that does not involve the death penalty. All other states require unanimous jury decisions in felony cases — as does the federal system, including federal courts in Louisiana and Oregon.
These jury systems are largely unnoticed vestiges of white supremacy and oppression in our legal system. The Supreme Court now has the chance to accept a case that could end the use of non-unanimous juries in criminal cases. It should take this chance.
 The rest of the piece is worth a look.

31 October 2017

No Lawyers Necessary

A great piece over at The Conversation reminds us that having a lawyer is a requirement for accessing the court system in the United States, it is increasingly necessary:
Eighty percent of state criminal defendants cannot afford to pay for a lawyer, and only those who are actually incarcerated are constitutionally entitled to appointed counsel. Many people facing misdemeanor charges can, if convicted, be subjected to significant fines and fees, or face the loss of benefits (including housing) or deportation. Yet, they have no right to an attorney, and those who cannot afford a lawyer will go without one.
Unlike in the criminal context, there’s no federal constitutional right to counsel in civil cases. Civil cases can involve a range of critical issues, including housing, public benefits, child custody and domestic violence. And while some civil litigants may be entitled to counsel in certain jurisdictions, in most of these cases, people who cannot afford a lawyer will be forced to go it alone. Doing so may mean that they fail to make it through the process, have their case dismissed or lose what otherwise would have been a winning case.
The article goes on to cite statistics like: "In some states, as many as 80 to 90 percent of litigants are unrepresented, even though their opponent has a lawyer.

Before working for the ACLU, I was employed for almost two years by the Legal Services Corporation, which represents low-income individuals in civil cases. We only had the resources to take a handful of the cases that came through our door, meaning that those we turned away had to maneuver through the court system on their own as a so-called pro-se litigant.

The United States prides itself on the idea that everyone has access to justice, and while in theory that is true because obtaining a lawyer is not technically required to access the courts, as this article points out, it is increasingly necessary in the face of courts who are hostile to so-called pro-se litigants.

As an aside, this is also an issue in England and Wales, and pointed out in this recent Guardian article.

26 October 2017

Removing Their Own

The Constitution Daily blog asks an intriguing question to which my constitutional law students should know the answer: "Can a senator serve in Congress after a conviction in court?" The answer to the question can be found in my lecture slides about the legislative branch or in the above linked to blog post.

12 October 2017

Supreme Court Preview Podcast

Looking for some legal listening to improve your legal English, expand your knowledge of American Constitutional Law and be in the know about what is coming up this term in the U.S. Supreme Court? You can do no better than the Amicus podcast featuring the Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (my former employer). If you do a quick Google search for "Supreme Court Preview 2017 Term" you will find all kinds of previews from various points of view.

10 October 2017

First Monday in October


Legal watchers in the United States know exactly what "the first Monday in October" means. This is the day on which each new term of the U.S. Supreme Court begins. But why the first Monday in October? The Constitution Daily blog explains.

17 July 2017

The Origins of the Term Gerrymander

Recently I have started discussing the topic of gerrymandering in my Constitutional Law courses. The term itself must sound funny to a non-native speaker. What on earth is a "gerrymander?" I suspect most native speakers also do not know the origin of this term and simply throw it around without ever wondering about this. A recent post by the National Constitutional Center explains that the "gerry" part of the term is linked to founding father and former Governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry. Gov. Gerry notoriously pushed a plan to redraw the lines of the political districts within the state. Critics of the plan were quick to point out that one of the districts looked like a salamander, and a political cartoon (see above) coined his plan as "gerrymandering." The term has stuck ever since.